Unhacking Digital Government

Modernizing and digitizing government is not a new idea. But while the pace of innovation and technological disruption has left the larger world unrecognizable, government and politics have been extremely slow to change. The inherent complexity of the problems to be solved, and built-in systemic inertia, have meant that any major changes in how the government functions have been difficult, if not impossible.

This has left many citizens, and would-be solution designers, frustrated. Many naturally turn to blaming the backwardness and anachronistic attitudes of public officials. By the same token, many in government are annoyed by the arrogance and naivety of those who chose to “fix” government without appreciating its unique structural and social constraints.

Bridging this disconnect in some way is critical in paving the way for holistic solutions that can genuinely improve governance and political representation, while also having a realistic chance of convincing relevant stakeholders of their value and feasibility.

Our goal is to facilitate this process and create a breeding ground for innovative solutions through which digital technologies can improve government and political representation.


Design Principles

Empathy: Good problem solving must start with having respect and an understanding of the constraints of all stakeholders affected by the problem.

Representation: Inclusive solutions that serve the diverse needs of all citizens are only possible if they are represented and heard at all stages of the solution design.

Equity: Representation is only useful if it is also converted into genuinely equitable and just solutions and outcomes.

Accountability: Decisions made in the design process could have significant consequences for large segments of the population. Designers will need to be comfortable and willing to take ownership of that responsibility.

Action: Adherence to all the above principles risks paralyzing the impulse to act. This must be tempered by the recognition that, eventually, progress is only possible through action.


Designing an Un-Hackathon

One of the fundamental problems we are trying to solve for is the inability of two important stakeholders, the government and digital solution designers, to understand the constraints under which the other operates.

“Hackers” assume that government simply does not act as it is either too incompetent, out of touch, or inadequately incentivized. But in their reading of the problem they often do not have an eye for the complexities and weight of political decision making. Given the balancing act between different constituents and affected parties, there are sometimes good reasons behind slow and careful consideration of even minor changes.

Similarly, governments often fail to understand the a technological solution as an entity in of itself. Missteps such as the initial roll-out of the Healthcare.gov website, that failed to adequately account for the technical challenges of implementing something on that scale, show that there is some way to go before policy and technology can be aligned seamlessly. It is not possible to make a policy and assume the technology will simply follow. The design process needs to start much earlier to ensure successful outcomes.

Given our main objectives are to encourage innovative solutions and help both parties unlearn some of their assumptions and approaches, the event we are proposing is an “Unhackathon”.

We will invite government representatives (elected or nominated officials), government employees, and any citizens interested in making digital solutions to improve the functioning of the government.

At the two-day event, we will reverse the roles of the participants based on their experience and run two parallel “constrained hackathons”.

On the first day, government officials will be presented with a number of technical restrictions, such as scale capacity and cost of maintenance, and will have to design purely technical solutions to solve a problem. This will force them to understand the trade-offs that must be made when creating digital solutions. But more importantly, it will also force them to recognize how design decisions are not neutral, and simple things like user-interface cues can significantly alter the practical implementation of an idea.

The other half of the event will force the hackers to come up with purely legislative or policy solutions for some of the inefficiencies they hope to remove. Their constraints will include existing laws, necessary political compromises and constituent expectations. This should help them gain an understanding of the complexities of political decision making, and the often unseen stakeholders that all changes in government impact.

Each of these two sides will have moderators that will communicate the constraints at the start of the session and will also confirm if all presented solutions satisfy the requirements.

The second day will have the two teams merging and taking their learnings to make more holistic solutions. At the conclusion of the second day all of the ideas will be judged on the basis of how well they meet the core principles stated above.

One thought on “Unhacking Digital Government

  1. A. The value that struck me as powerful, intriguing and unexpected is ’empathy’. I agree that many of the issues that are listed in the post are as a result of the lack of respect and understanding from the relevant parties. Empathy is a critical mindset that is integral in a design process. Without empathy, the process will most likely fail.

    B. An additional value that I would include is ‘collaboration’. At the beginning of the unhackathon (and at subsequent stages), both hackers and government officials should work together to share insights, best practices and advice .

    C. I can play a role in making this convening happening by offering my skills in user-centered design and facilitating participatory design workshops. I like the idea of an ‘unhackthon’ and in fact, I may adopt the ideologies of this particular convening in my future workshops! 🙂

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